Arabic Language and Literature - Medieval Islamic Empire?
Welcome to Quatr.us Study Guides!

Arabic Language

Sabataean
Sabataean writing

Arabic is in the Semitic language group, which seems to have gotten started before the beginning of writing, somewhere near modern Syria, and to have spread from there through Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan down to the Arabian peninsula. Because the Arabian peninsula was more isolated, people there continued to speak an older version of the language, while in Israel and Syria Semitic languages mixed more with Indo-European and other language groups.

arabic alphabet

Until the time of Mohammed, in the 600s AD, Arabic was mainly spoken and not written. Still, there are some written records from the Arabian peninsula from before the 600s AD. These are called Sabataean. But they are only short inscriptions in stone, not literature.

The alphabet first came to the Arabian peninsula and was used to write Arabic not too much before 400 AD; it's descended, like all the other alphabets, from the first alphabet invented in the Levant.

Arabic script
Arabic script writing the name of God (Allah)

After the Islamic conquests of the late 600s AD, people soon began to speak Arabic all over the Islamic Empire, from Afghanistan to Spain. By 1000 AD, some people knew Arabic even in India and East Africa.

Many people began to write in Arabic. Among the first things they wrote was the Quran, but soon many scientific texts and medical books and math books were written in Arabic, and also stories like the Arabian Nights or the Shahnameh. Arabic writers retold older stories from other places: the Greek story of Odysseus and the Cyclops finds its way into the story of Sinbad the Sailor, and the Indian Jataka Tales were retold as Nasruddin stories. There were many Arab historians, geographers, philosophers, and poets. But in the eastern part of the Islamic Empire, many people still spoke and wrote in Persian (an Indo-European language). One famous Persian story, written about 1000 AD, is the story of Sohrab and Rustem.


Here's a song by Yusuf Islam (who used to be
Cat Stevens) to teach the Arabic alphabet:

As Turkic and Altaic people from Central Asia moved into West Asia, beginning in the later medieval period, many people also told or wrote stories in Turkish. You can compare stories about the trickster Nasruddin to African Anansi stories.

Learn by doing: learn to write the Arabic alphabet
The Shahnameh
The Arabian Nights
Ancient Islam

Bibliography and further reading about Arabic and Islamic literature:

African Literature
Ancient Islam
Quatr.us home


LIMITED TIME OFFER FOR TEACHERS: Using this article with your class? Show us your class page where you're using this article, and we'll send you a free subscription so all your students can use Quatr.us Study Guides with no distractions! (Not a teacher? Paid subscriptions are also available for just $16/year!)
Please help other teachers and students find us: link to this page from your class page.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Cite this page
  • Author: K.E. Carr
  • Title:
  • Site Name: Quatr.us Study Guides
  • Publisher: Quatr.us
  • Date Published:
Did you find what you needed? Ask your teacher to link to this page so other people can use it too! Send it in and win a Quatr.us "Great Page!" award!
Sign up for more free articles and special offers in Quatr.us' weekly newsletter:
We will never share your e-mail address unless you allow us to do so. View our privacy policy. Easy unsubscribe links are provided in every email.
Comment on This Article

Does your class page honor diversity, celebrate feminism, and support people of color, LBGTQ people, and people with disabilities? Let us know, and we'll send you a Diversity Banner you can proudly display!
Looking for more?
Quatr.us is loading comments...
(Comments will appear after moderation, if they are kind and helpful. Feel free to ask questions, and we'll try to answer them.)
Cite this page
  • Carr, K.E. . Quatr.us Study Guides, . Web. 28 April, 2017
ADVERTISEMENT